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Using the Intensive Journal® Method to Cope With Bipolar Disorder
by Gerald C. Johnson
Mood disorders can be very devastating conditions even when ample
treatment is provided. Many people who suffer from these conditions
only receive treatment in the forms of medications and psychotherapy.
Intensive Journal method offered me an additional way
to privately work with difficult periods of my life, allowing me to
rediscover who I truly am.
I had been using Progoff's Intensive Journal method
for 15 years prior to my late onset episode of bipolar disorder. I have
attended and hosted several of these workshops in my career as a
teaching chaplain in community hospitals and as a psychotherapist in a
holistic health center. Since my diagnosis, the Journal has guided me
in working through feelings regarding my condition and in understanding
my mood changes. It has become a true ally.
At 58, I began to have difficulty with concentration and
keeping appointments. I was plagued by tiredness on the job,
irritability, and marital conflict. I also participated in grandiose
behaviors, including poor financial accountability and careless social
conduct. Most of these symptoms were faithfully logged in several
sections of the journal prior to an actual diagnosis of bipolar
I began speaking of these problems with my wife, therapist,
and physician, trying to sort through the difficulties I was having
within my own mind. The Journal enabled me to express my feelings in an
uninhibited manner. My entries became protests to the advice and
concerns of my family and associates. My own resistance towards my
feelings regarding the condition slowly broke away. I was able to move
towards an honesty within myself. Finally, the denial I had been
clinging to as my only defense diminished.
While working with my dream entries, I focused on the
spiritual themes of my calling and researched the origin of my family
and roots. With my daydreaming came anger and sadness about these roots
and relationships. Exploring these earlier phases of my development,
along with the interactions, brought no definite explanation to my
moods. It did, however, rule out a psycho-social basis for the manic
directions my moods and behaviors had taken. By working within the
reflective level of meditation, I was able to hold on to a sense of my
actual self, separate from my manic states.
With the loss of my job, my marriage, and clarity in 1993, I
was finally diagnosed as a Bipolar II, Manic-Depressive. This is an
organic condition caused by certain deficiencies of brain chemistry. It
is primarily treated through psycho-pharmacology as well as
cognitive-emotional group and individual therapy.
The Journal became a constant companion throughout the ongoing
treatment of my disorder. After my admission to a psychiatric unit, I
was held for several weeks in search of the best medical response for
my individual diagnosis. The Journal helped me work through different
health care issues which I was forced to confront. I began a quest for
a conscious self- awareness, which I have recently found useful in the
treatment of my disorder.
During the five years since I began treatment, the Journal has
been the most honest ally in offering me feedback, with regards to my
attitudes, conduct, and decisions. While in manic stages I lied not
only to other people, but also to myself. Previously, my ex-wife
questioned and contradicted my manic thoughts and behaviors. Without
her, I was left to express those ideas in my journal. The Journal has
an integrity to it that people do not. Because my entries were private,
I did not lie to them as I did other people. My feedback, in turn,
became more honest and I could see where I had gone astray in my
By reading previous and current entries, the web of
self-understanding wove itself ever finer. I am always challenged, and
frequently surprised at the connections I can make between past and
present. Entries written two hours, two weeks, as well as two years ago
alert me to things that were missed at the time, but now appear "as in
neon" with their brilliance to my condition.
The Journal helped me see my life as normal, even when it felt
as though it is out of control. I realized I was dealing with the same
problems in raising two daughters as many parents face. My daughters
constantly challenged the rules I had set. I assumed this disregard of
my authority was their response to my condition. As I continued to work
in the Journal, I realized that it was not the illness that caused
these problems, but simply the fact that my daughters were teenagers at
the time. In spite of my illness, I was capable of handling these
issues and succeeding at being a good father to both of them.
In the Journal, I had a place to act out fantasies and
grandiosities safely and without social or financial risk. During manic
episodes, I had many delusions of power, control and truth, which
caused me to make careless decisions. I had delusions that I was
almighty, even god-like, and that my knowledge was unsurpassable. As I
re-read entries written during those times, I realized my fantasies
were simply that: fantasies caused by manic episodes.
I watched myself deteriorate before and after hospitalization.
I would later trace patterns for future warnings or triggers of another
manic and/or depressive episode. My prior entries explained what
thoughts and behaviors occurred previously to the ups and downs. Many
times I stopped taking my medications because I would "forget" to bring
them on vacation or I would "forget" to take all three doses each day.
By re-reading entries surrounding these "forgetful" episodes, I was
able to see what thoughts and ideas led me to stop taking my
medications in the first place. The symptoms that had preceded a mood
change were the same symptoms that were present when I stopped taking
my medications. I became aware of these warning signs of my mood
changes and could attend to taking my medications as prescribed.
Because I could conceptualize this illness in my writing on a
daily basis, I was able to give myself a better cognitive prescription.
I realize that by being conscious of my disease, I could work through
it and try to prevent relapses.
Through this personal account, hopefully I have shown the benefits of the synergistic effects of the Intensive Journal
method and the treatments for mood disorder. It may generate an
application for at least some sufferers of this disorder to write
about, and understand, their life stories. Once they come to terms with
their past, it can lead to securing a more profound grasp of their true
selves. However, any ultimate therapeutic value is dependent upon the
person's own use of the Intensive Journal method.
"Intensive Journal" is a registered trademark of Jon Progoff and licensed to
Dialogue House. © Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission of the author.